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James R. Hoffa

James R. Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa's (1913-1975?) name will always be synonymous with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the United States. Hoffa secured his place in union history with his zealous support of the Teamsters, which included conflicts with law enforcement and union leadership, dealings with organized crime leaders, criminal indictments, felony convictions, and, many speculate, his own murder.

Jimmy Hoffa is a name which will forever be associated with, and even synonymous with, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the United States. From the 1930s Hoffa persevered through clashes with police, struggles with union members, fights for control of his union, known associations with organized crime, several indictments, a pair of felony convictions, banishment from union activity and even death to survive as a symbol of the Teamsters. Labor historians disagree about his relative value or disservice to the labor movement in America, but no one can question his legacy of power or his status as a legend.

Early Leadership

Hoffa's career in labor activity began as a teenager in the 1930s, when he engineered a strike on a Kroger grocery store loading dock in southwest Detroit. The strike was called the moment a huge trailer of fresh strawberries came in. Management knew it wouldn't take the food long to spoil, and a new contract was reached in an hour. Within a year, Hoffa's "Strawberry Boys" joined Teamsters Local 674, and later merged with Truck Drivers Local 299. Hoffa demonstrated his clout when he transformed the local from a 40-member unit with $400 to its name to a 5, 000-member unit with $50, 000 in the bank.

Organized Crime Connections

In 1941 Hoffa entered a phase of his life which would remain with him until the end and would define a large part of his reputation when he formed his first alliance with organized crime. Involved in a turf fight with the Congress of Industrialized Organizations, he asked for help from some of Detroit's east side gangsters to roust his opposition. The east side crowd was happy to oblige, and drove the CIO local out of town. Contacts between Hoffa and the mob would continue for the rest of his life. Some of the activities Hoffa engaged in with organized crime are rumors, while others are known for sure, but his connection to mob figures were never a secret, nor did he try to keep them one.

Tough Times for Unions

The union movement was unpopular in many quarters in the pre-World War II United States, and Hoffa's early experiences with the truckers' union were trying. Company goons, labor goons, and the police all were physical threats, Hoffa's car was bombed, his office was smashed, and he was once arrested 18 times in a single day. "When you went out on strike in those days, you got your head broken, " he remembered to the Detroit News. "The cops would beat your brains out if you even got caught talking about unions." By the time he was 28, Hoffa was vice president and chief negotiator for the union. In one major negotiation he threatened to shut down one trucking company and leave others open, a ploy which won the union an unheard-of statewide contract.

Hoffa Elected Teamsters Vice President

In 1952 Hoffa won election as international vice president of the Teamsters under president Dave Beck, who was already under investigation by federal agencies. Hoffa centralized the administration and bargaining procedures of the union in the international union office and succeeded in creating the first national freight-hauling agreement.

In 1957 Beck was summoned before the U.S. Senate's McClellan Committee, where he took the Fifth Amendment approximately two hundred times. When Beck finished his testimony, he had little credibility left as the Teamsters leader. Hoffa moved in. The election to put Hoffa in the presidency was disputed, and the government publicly emphasized Hoffa's connections with organized-crime figures. Nevertheless, Hoffa held on to the presidency and avoided jail for almost a decade.

Hoffa's entrenchment in the Teamsters went hand-in-hand with the mob's entrenchment in the Teamsters. Several organized crime figures assumed positions in the union, and a phony Teamster local was reportedly set up in Detroit as a front for drug dealing. Rumors persisted that Hoffa had murder contracts out on John Kennedy and/or Robert Kennedy, and Hoffa's unconcealed satisfaction at the assassination of both brothers didn't dispel the rumors. He never hesitated to use force in the operations of his union, either: An economics professor who had a 90-day inside look at the Teamsters in the early 1960s wrote, quoted in the Detroit News, "As recently as 1962, I heard him order the beating of a man 3, 000 miles away, and on another occasion, I heard him instruct his cadre on precisely how to ambush non-union truck drivers with gunfire … to frighten them, not to kill."

Criminal Activities

Hoffa faced a series of major felony trials in the 1960s. One factor which had worked in his favor at avoiding prosecution was that Attorney General Robert Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover disliked each other too much to cooperate to prosecute him, but in 1962 he was tried for taking a million-dollar kickback for guaranteeing a company labor peace. He was acquitted, but on the last day of the trial he was accused of trying to bribe jurors. That charge brought Hoffa a conviction and an eight-year prison term in 1964, and two months later he suffered another conviction for mail fraud and misuse of a $20-million pension fund. The result was a 13-year combined sentence, which was commuted by President Richard Nixon in 1971 after Hoffa had served just under five years, during which he retained his presidency of the Teamsters.

One of the terms of Hoffa's commuted sentence was that he refrain from union activity, but he made no bones about wanting to regain the presidency of the Teamsters. He lost an appeal on the restriction before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, but still hoped to displace Frank Fitzsimmons, whom he had picked himself to serve as president upon his release from prison.

Mystery

That ambition reached its conclusion on the afternoon of July 30, 1975. Hoffa had apparently received an invitation to lunch at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Southfield, Michigan. The mob had a good working relationship with Fitzsimmons at this time, and wanted to stop Hoffa from regaining control of the Teamsters. Hoffa presumably thought he was being invited to a meeting to work out an arrangement with the mob, but instead he may have been invited to his own murder. No one has ever been arrested in the Hoffa case, no body has ever been found, and no one has ever definitively solved the mystery, but this is the scenario which most parties, including the FBI, believe to be true: Anthony Provenzano, a mobster and New Jersey Teamsters boss, asked Hoffa to meet him for lunch to patch up their relationship, which had become strained while Hoffa was in prison. Anthony Giacalone had arranged the lunch, but neither he nor Provenzano showed up. Hoffa was picked up by several men in a maroon Mercury sedan, was murdered in Detroit and his body was disposed of at a mob-owned sanitation company in Hamtramck, Michigan. Hoffa was officially declared "presumed dead" in 1982.

Immortalized on Film

The Hoffa legend was immortalized in 1992 when director Danny DeVito put it on the big screen in the film Hoffa. The film, which admitted to taking some liberties with the truth, received mixed reviews, and some criticism was leveled at it for historical inaccuracies and an overly sympathetic, even apologetic portrayal of the title character by Jack Nicholson. In perhaps the perfect postscript to the Hoffa legend, Sean Wilentz, writing in the New Republic, blasted the film for having been conceived, originated, and outlined by organized crime figures.

Further Reading

Walter Sheridan, The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972).

Arthur A. Sloane, Hoffa (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). □

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